Can Brandon Marshall, Larry Fitzgerald survive the curse of the 32-year-old wideout?

ByJohn Clayton ESPN logo
Wednesday, August 17, 2016

On Aug. 5, Larry Fitzgerald caught a Hail Marythat would elude most wide receivers older than 30: He snagged an $11 million contract extension.

As starting salaries escalate, surveying the market for aging wide receivers in their 30sis becoming as painful as going across the middle of the field against an awaiting safety. The crash point is around32, although some veterans can buy more time by playing at a lower wage.

Last season, 25 wide receivers who were 30 years old or older caught at least one pass. That's significantly fewer that the number of 30-or-older receivers who caught at least one pass in 2008 (37). There could be as few as 20 in 2016.

Each year the league says goodbye to big names who filled fantasy leagues. Look at the current group of unemployed wide receivers: Wes Welker, Roddy White, Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, Marques Colston, Dwayne Bowe, Devin Hester and Miles Austin. All are 31 or older. James Jones just landed a job with the San Diego Chargers. Andre Johnson had to accept a $975,000 salary to sign with the Tennessee Titans. Greg Jennings, Malcom Floyd and Lance Moore retired.

The only aging receivers going strong inboth pay and play are Fitzgerald, of the Arizona Cardinals, and the New York Jets' Brandon Marshall. Both are 32, though Fitzgerald turns 33 on Aug. 31.

"With Larry and I, you never know, but we are feeling good," Marshall said. "We are living in the moment and we have no plans of slowing down anytime soon."

Fitzgerald caught 109 passes for 1,215 yards last season. Marshall, dumped by the Chicago Bears for a fifth-round pick, had 109 catches for 1,502 yards. He makes $8.6 million per year.

"I think I can play as long as I want to, barring any significant injury, Lord willing," Marshall said. "My game has never been built off speed. It's built on separation and understanding the game and knowing what I'm doing. The big thing is using my body and my strength, and you have until you are 50, 60 and 70 years old using your strength. I'm still pretty fast and pretty quick, which still gives me the ability to go for 1,500 yards."

But both players know the NFL stands for Not For Long. Any drop in production could lead to a drop in salary and a quick career exit. Last month, Fitzgerald said he would be lying if he didn't think about retirement, but he's not close to that point yet.

"I have lot of good football left in me," Fitzgerald told the NFL Network. "But I feel great. I can still play at a high level, so I just take it one year at a time."

Now he has another year and contract through the 2017 season.

Normally, aging receivers have to adjust their mindset as they maneuver toward their 30s. An ESPNstudy showed the peaks and valleys of receivers as they age. The study reviewed receivers who had at least four years of experience dating back to 2001 through last season; it took into account the 50 most productive receivers during that 15-year period.

The study showed that the top50 receivers peaked at 27, averaging79.2 catchesand 1,083 yards at that age. There waslittle drop-off in yards over the next two years, from1,049 at age 28 to 1,027 at 29. By age 30, the receivers' average yards per season dropped below 1,000, to 962, though there was a slight uptick at the age of 31 to 990.

The big fall took place at age 32, when the receivers' average yards per season dropped all the way down to 827.

Declining numbers means declining pay.

Coaches tend to move outside receivers into the slot as they cross the 30-year-old barrier, and that usually lessens their salaries. Anquan Boldin was lucky enough to get a two-year, $12 million deal at the age of 33, but he just took $2.75 million, at 35, to be a slot receiver for the Detroit Lions. At the age of 33,Steve Smith Sr. went from $7.5 million a year to $3.5 million.

For a 32-year-old receiver to accept playing for less than half his old salary is tough. Marshall joked that he could go into TVrather than take the big pay cut, even though he loves the game.

In fact, Marshall loves the game so much he it took to heart this spring when Jets coach Todd Bowles asked him tolose weight. Marshallusually weighs between 240 to 245 pounds in the offseason. He remembers Michael Strahan once telling him the older a player gets, the more weight he needs to lose.

So he did it. Marshall is now around 220 pounds and is having a good camp.

Odds still go against receivers once theyreach the age of 32. Since 2010,only four (Fitzgerald, Johnson, Smith and Reggie Wayne) have had1,000-yard seasons at that age, and only two have had 1,000-yard seasons at 33 (Boldin and Wayne) and 34 (Boldin and Smith).

Can Fitzgerald and Marshall break the trend and follow up their monster 2015 seasons with huge numbers again? Only time will tell.

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